Reverse revisionism?
March 2, 2004 12:41 PM   Subscribe

How bad was the bombing of Dresden? It seems there is a veritable industry dedicated to debunking the various and sundry historical accounts different groups hold sacred. I was raised by pacifists and was made very familiar with the stories of Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Dresden, in particular. According to this man's new book, the firebombing of Dresden wasn't quite as bad as it has been made out to be. In fact, much of the evidence for the numbers of dead come from an historian who has since been discredited as a holocaust denier. Others would argue that a war crime is a war crime is a war crime. In the end, do the specific numbers really matter? How less evil is 25,000 dead than 135,000?
posted by piedrasyluz (20 comments total)
There are holocaust deniers who deny historical events based on the lack of physical evidence, they might not deny that 6 million jews died, just that there isn't physical evidence of it, then there are those, like Mel Gibson's dad, who think there is a huge Jewish conspiracy to make this stuff up and get sympathy. I'm still trying to figure out what aisle to place this guy on.

*disclaimer, I personally belive it all happened, just like they say, before you get on me for anything. Thanks.
posted by Pollomacho at 12:50 PM on March 2, 2004

Has anyone ever heard of a classical song based on the firebombing of Dresden? I heard it once, and can't remember the name anymore. It was pretty eerie.
posted by stoneegg21 at 1:02 PM on March 2, 2004

The Wikipedia has some interesting information, including the fact that even now, 50 years later, the city has not reached the population it had when it was bombed.

I've been to Dresden, and there are still buildings and churches left unrestored as a memorial of those who died in the's devastating to see it in person and realize that 15 kilometers around where you're standing was totally destroyed...and at the epicenter, many things and people were just vaporized.

The area that was firebombed was huge. The city was filled with refugees fleeing the Russian army. I am not surprised that the death count varies so widely, as I doubt there's any way to actually count who was in the area for the 3 days that the bombings were carried out.
posted by dejah420 at 1:09 PM on March 2, 2004

stoneegg21: I believe the piece you're referring to is "In Memoriam, Dresden, 1945" by Daniel Bukvich.
posted by Swifty at 1:27 PM on March 2, 2004

For all I've read about the Dresden attack, nothing really brought home the reality of it like this line from from the Wikipedia piece:

[Destroyed were] 14,000 homes, 72 schools, 22 hospitals, 19 churches, 5 theaters, 50 bank and insurance companies, 31 department stores, 31 large hotels, and 62 administration buildings.

The idea of department stores and insurance companies being destroyed really humanizes the horror of it, even more than the death toll itself.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 1:41 PM on March 2, 2004

But ... but, it was war! These things happen in war, you know, all Shock'n'Awe like.

I was mortified by the idea that the Coalition forces were openly and excitedly counting on terror bombing to cow the defenders of Iraq, precisely because it conjures thoughts of Dresden in my mind. I'm fully aware that smart bombs are more forgiving than carpet bombs from B-17s and B-24s, but the moral judgement remains the same in my mind. Its a terror attack against the innocents of the enemy, thereby making them unwilling combattants. It doesn't matter what the death toll is, the effect is the same (as shown quite nicely on the sunny morn of Sept. 11, 2001).
posted by Wulfgar! at 1:54 PM on March 2, 2004

Dicknaut - No farkin'P/W notice.
posted by malwilde at 3:35 PM on March 2, 2004

Free copies of "In Memoriam, Dresden, 1945" are available here:

There is an MP3 and Real file at the bottom, meant for use by music students.
posted by crazy finger at 3:36 PM on March 2, 2004

"You'll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you'll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we'll have a lot more of them. And they'll be fought by babies like the babies upstairs."

Kurt Vonnegut -- "Slaughterhouse Five"

I went to Dresden in 1993, and made a sort of slide show as a result: Dresden before, during, and after the firebombing of 1945. You can find it here.
posted by matteo at 4:36 PM on March 2, 2004

Shit, now I'm bummed. I expected at least one Bush apologist to pick up the fact that terror bombing in Dresden was different than Shock and Awe in Baghdad, or was it?
posted by Wulfgar! at 6:10 PM on March 2, 2004

ccording to this man's new book, the firebombing of Dresden wasn't quite as bad as it has been made out to be.

I dunno, I figure anything described as "firebombing" is probably pretty bad.
posted by waldo at 6:35 PM on March 2, 2004

so it goes
posted by muckster at 6:56 PM on March 2, 2004

Shit, now I'm bummed. I expected at least one Bush apologist to pick up the fact that terror bombing in Dresden was different than Shock and Awe in Baghdad, or was it?

I'm about the furthest thing from a Bush apologist, but I don't see them as moral equivalent.

Because doesn't every military attack instill fear in the people being subjected to it? It's the nature of the thing. A military commander would be stupid not to recognize this fact and not to try to find a way to use it to his advantage. Read a few things written by men who have been under an artillery barrage. I get numb watching a realistic TV recreation (a la "Band of Brothers.") Now, if you're going to claim that pummeling a square mile or so where soldiers are in foxholes with artillery shells is the same thing as leveling a city full of civilians, than just let me know because we'll never see eye to eye (from a purely military frame of reference. Obviously, they both suck.)

Now, did I miss something? Did the US carpet bomb Baghdad? Give me some proof and I'll gladly change my view. Look, when I first heard "Shock and Awe" I just thought it was a lame propagandist way of saying, "we're going to try to take them out and hard and fast as we can." (And, to be honest, I thought they tried to sell it like they would scare the Iraqi's so bad they would fold in a day or two. They might have actually believed it, even though that's not what happened.)

Point being, an attack that is meant to quickly overwhelm an enemy (which, realistically won't happen unless you scare the crap out of them) ain't the same thing as firebombing a city, IMHO.
posted by Cyrano at 9:17 PM on March 2, 2004

It's like a goya painting. In all, this book hints at the thing that frustrates me most about history, the constant retelling to prejudice modern issues.
posted by drezdn at 11:26 PM on March 2, 2004

You think you have to be a Bush apologist to see a moral difference between carpet bombing a city and using a large number of cruise missiles in a short time to acheive a psychological effect?

Hmm, bombs rain down, buildings blow up, fires burn, people die, enemy is supposed to be broken in spirit. Explain that difference to me of which you speak, becuase I'm sure not seeing it.
posted by Wulfgar! at 5:26 AM on March 3, 2004

There is a tactical difference between carpet bombing and firebombing. The former typically uses high explosives (crater-makers) and is designed to kill every person and destroy every structure on which the bombs fall. The latter, using incendiary bombs, has a much greater goal: burning not only that which lies underneath the bombs, but potentially destroying everything within a generous proximity by causing a mass fire (aka firestorm). Incendiary bombs are If enough fires burn in close proximity, they can alter the local climate, creating winds (usually via updraft) that cause the growth of the fires to accelerate, creating an incredibly intense fire. For the Allies, Dresden was a successful attempt to create a firestorm.

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists published a lengthy description of how the intense light from a nuclear detonation creates far-outlying fires that are fanned into mass fire by the centripedal air pressure created at ground zero by the rising column of heat from the initial blast. A city with any density, like D.C., would suffer a far greater loss from mass fire than from the bomb itself (or being carpetbombed, for that matter).

(Didn't I see this here before?)
posted by bafflegab at 5:38 AM on March 3, 2004

bafflegab - yeah, you did. I posted it under the title City on Fire here a while back.
posted by Irontom at 6:11 AM on March 3, 2004

Hmm, bombs rain down, buildings blow up, fires burn, people die, enemy is supposed to be broken in spirit.

In the case of Dresden vs the Coalition, the difference is the target.

We all remember the mass surrenders of the Iraqi army during Gulf War I, soldiers surrendering to reporters, etc. That was Shock and Awe. We just didn't have the nifty phrase for it back then. The Iraqi army was systematically hammered so that when the time came for them to fight a lot of them said, "fuck this!" To me, that's a good thing. Too many people had died already and there was no reason to add to the body count.

The second time around, Bush Admin II thought they could pull the same thing off in a matter of days and it didn't happen. But in neither war was the civilian population a target. civilians died, and there's no other way to say it (because the far, far left folks just love to jump all over anyone who uses this phrase,) but that happens. And you're probably right that to the Iraqi on the ground there may not seem like a lot of difference. A man whose house just blew up with his family in it because a smart bomb went off track really isn't going to care that he wasn't the actual target.
posted by Cyrano at 6:50 AM on March 3, 2004

Thanks for posting this. I find the hyped-up argument about exactly how many people died fairly repugnant (Raul Hilberg said 5 million Jews were exterminated, not 6 million; so what?), but I'm extremely interested in the destruction of Dresden, having just reached that point in the diary of Victor Klemperer, an amazing book I heartily recommend to anyone interested in Nazi Germany and/or what war is like for civilians bearing the brunt of it.
posted by languagehat at 8:05 AM on March 3, 2004

There's a good account of the Dresden book in this review.

The Nazis' own propaganda machine largely manufactured the raid's infamy: immediately after the attack Goebbels wildly exaggerated the number of dead and falsely claimed that the city was of no military significance. The truth, though, is horrifying enough.

[I]n his careful way Taylor undercuts the simplistic view of the Dresden attack specifically, and of the Allies' air war generally, that too many Germans (and readers of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five) embrace. Although little in his book will surprise experts, Taylor points out that Dresdeners were particularly keen supporters of the Nazis and that their city, a key transportation and communications hub, housed a number of important and technologically sophisticated war industries (which employed Jewish slave labor). He concomitantly argues that the raid primarily aimed not to terrorize but to disrupt the movement of troops and materiel to the Eastern Front.

posted by LeLiLo at 8:24 AM on March 3, 2004

« Older ye shall have their carcases in abomination!   |   i hate taxes. Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments